UA Astronomy Is Part of April 3 Worldwide Astronomy Marathon
Night owls can tour the world's top observatories, including those in Arizona, via the WorldWideWeb.

By Lori Stiles, University Communications
March 30, 2009

Advanced astronomical facilities that The University of Arizona helped develop are among leading ground-based and space-based telescopes that will be featured in a first-ever, 24-hour live video Webcast on Friday, April 3.

The Webcast, called "Around the World in 80 Telescopes," is sponsored by the International Astronomical Union as part of the 100 Hours of Astronomy project that celebrates the International Year of Astronomy 2009. This year marks the 400th anniversary of Galileo's first scientific use of the telescope.

The Webcast, which begins Friday at 09:00 Universal Time, or 2 a.m. Mountain Time, will be hosted at the European Southern Observatory's headquarters in Munich, Germany, with live streaming by Anyone with a web browser supporting Flash will be able to follow the show via the 100HA Web site.

Professional astronomers on every continent – including Antarctica – will talk about their telescopes and research from their control rooms, giving behind-the-scenes views of their observatories, which are the most advanced observatories on and off the planet. They'll also show short videos of their observatories and new astronomical images during their 20-minute time slots.

"The tour will show a snapshot of life at the different observatories as astronomers study galaxies, stars and planets at infrared, visible, radio and other wavelengths," said Webcast organizer Douglas Pierce-Price of the European Southern Observatory.

The Webcast will begin with telescopes on Mauna Kea, Hawaii, and move west around the planet. Therefore, Arizona and California observatories will go live near the end of the Webcast.

Observatories in which the UA is a major partner will join the Webcast at the following approximate Mountain Standard times, although the schedule may slip 20 minutes earlier or later:

  • Hubble Space Telescope, 10:20 a.m.

UA astronomy professor Rodger Thompson is principal investigator for the infrared camera, called "NICMOS," which was installed on the NASA/European Space Agency telescope in 1997.

Two UA astronomers, NICMOS astronomer Glenn Schneider and Gary Schmidt, were part of a team that just succeeded in fine-tuning NICMOS, making it a far more powerful tool for high-precision "polarimetry." The technique allows astronomers to see light aligned only in one way, like looking through a set of polaroid sunglasses. It enables astronomers to view around clouds of dust and gas that obscure the centers of galaxies, or view potential planet-forming disks around young stars, for example.

NASA plans to send astronauts on a mission to upgrade the Hubble next May.

Visit the Steward Observatory space project Web site for more information.

  • Spitzer Space Telescope, 2:20 p.m.

UA Regents' Professor of Astronomy George Rieke is principal investigator for this NASA telescope's far-infrared camera, called the Multiband Imaging Photometer. The camera, called "MIPS" for short, was used in making a new, highest-resolution-ever image of a famous nearby galaxy – a spectacular image that the public will see for the first time on April 3.

MIPS can map even the coldest dust around stars, and "by looking at the remnants of colder dust we can tell what happened during the star's lifetime," said UA astronomer and MIPS team member Joannah Hinz. "We're finding that there's a much bigger component of cold dust to galaxies than we ever thought."

To learn more, visit the Steward Observatory space project Web site.

  • Large Binocular Telescope, Mount Graham, 10:40 p.m.

The LBT became the world's most powerful optical telescope last year when both of its giant mirrors, mounted side-by-side in a single telescope, became operational. The two 8.4-meter diameter, or 27.6-foot primary mirrors collect as much light as an 11.8-meter diameter, or 39-foot telescope would. More importantly, LBT astronomers say, light from the two mirrors will be combined in a way that will give the telescope the resolution of a 22.8-meter, or 75-foot telescope, a view 10 times sharper that the Hubble Space Telescope has.

"The ultimate performance advantages of the LBT will give us insights about how the earliest galaxies formed," said LBT director Richard Green. He will guide the tour at LBT during the live Web cast.

The telescope's prime-focus cameras have already produced significant science, including the identification of a bare neutron star as the source of powerful X-rays and a survey of faint galaxies conducted at ultraviolet wavelengths, Green said. Survey results "show we need to refine models of the history of star formation in galaxies at earlier cosmic times," Green added.

There would be no LBT without the big, but lightweight "honeycomb" structure mirrors, which are made only one place in the world, at the UA Steward Observatory Mirror Lab. The LBT Observatory is run by a partnership of U.S., Italian and Germany institutions, including the UA.

  • ARO SubMillimeter Telescope, Mount Graham, 11:20 p.m.

Chemists, as well as astronomers, use this telescope in studying the chemistry of deep space. Because the SMT is a radio telescope, astronomers can use it around-the-clock, and they do so for about nine or 10 months a year, logging about 10,000 observing hours, of which 1,500 hours are dedicated to submillimeter-wavelength observations.

"Only recently have people realized how much chemistry is going on in the dense gas between the stars," said Arizona Radio Observatory director Lucy Ziurys. She will guide the tour at the SMT during the live Web cast.

The telescope's dry, 10,000-foot elevation site is perfect for doing astronomy at submillimeter wavelengths, and its 10-meter collecting antenna is accurate to 15 microns – less than a third as thick as a single human hair. But what also makes this facility state-of-the-art is the fact that it uses the world's most sensitive detector, or "receiver," at the one-millimeter wavelength. The receiver is the prototype developed for a next-generation radio telescope to be built in Chile.

Ziurys and her group have discovered scores of molecules that contain the necessary ingredients of life – sugars, and molecules that contain phosphorus and oxygen, for example.

On April 3, Ziurys will be observing the black hole in the center of our Milky Way in synchrony with colleagues at radio telescopes in Hawaii and California. The Arizona-California-Hawaii telescope combination gives astronomers an observing baseline that spans a significant part of the globe.

  • Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope, Mount Graham, 11:35 p.m.

Vatican Observatory scientists were active in astronomy even before Galileo, when they reformed the calendar. Light pollution at their observatory near Rome mobilized them to spin-off a research group elsewhere on Earth in 1980, and they selected UA so they could take advantage of the many telescopes in southern Arizona.

In partnership with UA, the Vatican Observatory constructed the optical/infrared Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope, or VATT, at Mount Graham International Observatory in 1993.

The telescope's fast-focusing 1.8-meter, or 72-inch, primary mirror was a prototype produced at the UA Steward Observatory Mirror Lab, which pioneered spin-casting and stressed-lap polishing technologies the Mirror Lab has since used in much larger telescopes in Arizona and Chile, including the LBT.

"The VATT has been operating efficiently now for 16 years at one of the darkest astronomical sites, the Mount Graham site," said Vatican Observatory astronomer Richard P. Boyle. Boyle will guide the live Webcast tour at the VATT.

Boyle and A.G. Davis Philip from Union College, Schenectady, NY., will observe galactic and globular star clusters on April 3.

"We are doing ground-based observing of two galactic star clusters, NGC 6811 and NGC 6819, which are of particular interest because the Kepler Mission successfully launched a few weeks ago," Boyle said. They're using a very efficient CCD camera produced by Michael Lesser at UA's Imaging Technology Laboratory.

"From our observations we intend to identify solar-type stars in the Kepler field to serve as candidate stars for Kepler to stare at to detect exoplanets, and possibly Earth-like planets," Boyle said.

  • MMT Observatory, Mount Hopkins, 11:50 p.m.

The 6.5-meter MMTO, a joint venture of the UA and the Smithsonian Institution, is located on the summit of Mount Hopkins, the second highest peak in the Santa Rita Range of the Coronado Forest, about 30 miles south of Tucson. It has been a pioneering telescope from the start.

The original MMT, dedicated in 1979, used six 1.8-meter primary mirrors controlled on the first computer-controlled telescope mount. The six identical mirrors collected light equal to a 4.5-meter mirror and fit within a four-and-a-half ton rotating building, a much smaller building than housed conventional telescopes of similar size. The MMT's computer-controlled multiple optics, computer-controlled telescope mount, and co-rotating building are now standard features of most large optical telescopes.

Ten years ago, the engineers replaced the MMT's multiple mirrors with a single, stiff, lightweight 6.5-meter honeycomb mirror cast and polished at the UA Mirror Lab. The conversion increased the telescope's light-collecting area by 2.5 times and expanded its field-of-view by about 15 times, giving MMT astronomers 200 times more sky to study than they previously had.

Whether its taking one of the first direct pictures of a planet outside our solar system, or developing multiple-laser guide stars for state-of-the-art adaptive optics systems required by the world's next-generation telescopes, the MMT has proved to be a tool of choice.

G. Grant Williams of the MMTO will host the live webcast tour. His presentation will include video that shows how efficient the telescope day crew has become at switching observing setups needed by different astronomers. The MMTO has three secondary mirrors and a current suite of 13 instruments. The MMTO day crew could hold the speed record for reconfiguring a telescope.

  • Kitt Peak National Observatory, April 4, 12:40 a.m.

For information on the live webcast from Kitt Peak National Observatory, contact scientists with the National Optical Astronomy Observatory outreach team.